August 6, 2011 in News

Shawn Vestal: No Twitter, no apps, just boredom and a surprise discovery

By The Spokesman-Review
 

On the Web:
Read the entire Philip Larkin poem online here.

I’m not sure when I turned over the title to my soul, technically.

It might have been the moment I dragged out my “smart” phone to occupy 10 seconds while I waited, perched on a wooden giraffe, for the Carrousel to start at a 4-year-old’s birthday party. Or the first time I used that phone to check Facebook while waiting impatiently for my desktop computer to boot up.

Or it might have been when I noticed that I can no longer stand on an elevator, sit by myself in a restaurant, or watch my son on a playground without hitting the electronic crack pipe.

There was a time, in the glory days of this addiction, when I thought what was happening was the death of boredom. All that tap-tap-tapping was just an excellent weapon in the war against nothingness.

But boredom is a superbacteria. All the electronic antibiotics in the world only strengthen it. Now it’s there constantly, nipping away at every free second. I don’t think I used to find it unbearably dreary to wait at a street corner or stand in line at the grocery store, but now it gives me the delirium tremens, hands shaking for a fix, trying not to get out the phone and see if someone has emailed me or “liked” something in the last 17 seconds.

It’s not the death of boredom at all. It’s the triumph of boredom.

Perhaps you can’t relate to this. Possibly you don’t have a smartphone, or maybe you have one and don’t operate in complete thrall to its siren song. Not all that long ago, I couldn’t relate myself – I would look at the legions of the young, walking down the sidewalk, eyes on their palms, talking about apps, and think: Look up! Life’s out here! It’s not in your hand!

Then I got one of the damned things. Hey, look – the New York Times! Wow – a map of the nighttime sky! A barcode scanner! A bright flashlight! A camera that’s better than our actual camera! My bank balance!

The world’s most amazing thingie.

But mostly what I do with the world’s most amazing thingie is chat, in one form or another. I announce inane things on social media. Read inane things on social media. Promote myself on social media. Comment glibly on social media. Check back to see if anyone responded to my self-promotional inanities on social media.

I’m not decrying the shallowness of social media here. Most socializing is shallow. Hi, how are ya? Good, thanks. Can’t complain. Comme ci, comme ça. Decrying Facebook or Twitter for not being deep is like decrying an elevator conversation for not being the Lincoln-Douglas debate.

I’m more worried about the death of the daydream, the yearning for pats on the head, and the nattering mental itch of addiction. For me, time with an “empty” mind is vital and sustaining. As I remember it, anyway. As a writer, I’ve often thought that the most important time was not at the keyboard, but floating among the stray thoughts that come before and after.

It seemed natural to ask my Facebook friends for their thoughts. They’re a smart bunch – here’s some of what they had to say:

• “I spent one week of my vacation without a phone or Internet. It was the best week this year. I drew, wrote the beginnings of three poems, read 5 books, took 4 hikes and drove over 600 miles of dirt road. I think we should give up technology for the Sabbath and take fasts!”

• “I didn’t have a TV for the last year and no Internet for half of it. This year I have become reacquainted with my senses – I feel like I’m more in touch with my body and my feelings, and I am sure that the lack of TV/Internet has contributed to it.”

• “I’m experiencing pretty much exactly what you described. Too much smartphone time during my down time, not enough thinking/writing. It’s a love-hate relationship. When you really need to pass along that one email or get to your files, you’re uninhibited because it’s all in your pocket. But you’re also carrying around an instant way to disengage not only from the outside world, but from your own thoughts.”

• “I gave up my smartphone for this exact reason. We also have a ‘no Internet on weekends’ policy at home, though we break it for Netflix and Google maps.”

• “Technology is shortening my attention span. My iPhone has created an imaginary ‘urgent to-do’ list that includes checking blogs, Twitter and the like, to make sure I don’t miss anything related to my work. Ironically, that constant multitasking has made it hard for me to do what I must, which is listen contemplatively to great music and learn to become an informed viewer of great art … all these are quiet, time-consuming pursuits that I find it hard to buckle down to. You can’t Tweet about Mahler.”

• “But what’s the solution? Self-discipline? No, seriously. I think the answer must also lie in technology. If we could turn it against itself … maybe there’s an app that turns off all the apps, a program that blackens the screen.”

• “Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.”

There was something particularly satisfying about this last comment, because it reminded me of a passage from a poem by the prickly, gloomy, pre-Internet Philip Larkin.

Larkin’s “The Trees” portrays the arrival of a spring as ominous as it is beautiful: “Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May./Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

I love that poem. Maybe I’ll tweet it.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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